Chapter LXI: Defoe--The First Newspapers
TO almost every house in the land, as regular as the milk man, more regular than the postman, there comes each morning the newspaper boy. To most of us breakfast means, as well as things to eat, mother pouring out the tea and father reading the newspaper. As mother passes father's tea she says, "Anything in the paper, John?" And how often he answers, "Nothing, nothing whatever."
Although father says there is nothing in the paper there is a great deal of reading in it, that we can see. And now comes the question, Who writes it all? Who writes this thin, flat book of six or eight great pages which every morning we buy for a penny or a halfpenny? But perhaps you think it does not matter who writes the newspapers, for the newspaper is not literature. Literature means real books with covers--dear possessions to be loved and taken care of, to be read and read again. But a newspaper is hardly read at all when it is crumpled up and used to light the fire. And no one minds, for who could love a newspaper, who cares to treasure it, and read it again and yet again?
We do not want even to read yesterday's newspapers, for newspapers seem to hold for us only the interest of the day. The very name by which they used to be called, journal, seems to tell us that, for it comes from the French word "jour," meaning "a day." Newspapers give us the news of the day for the day. Yet in them we find the history of our own times, and we are constantly kept in mind of how important they are in our everyday life by such phrases as "the freedom of the Press," "the opinion of the Press," the Press meaning all the newspapers, journals and magazines and the people who write for them.
So we come back again to our question, Who writes for the newspapers? The answer is, the journalists. A newspaper is not all the work of one man, but of many whose names we seldom know, but who work together so that each morning we may have our paper. And in this chapter I want to tell you about one of our first real journalists, Daniel Defoe. Of course you know of him already, for he wrote Robinson Crusoe, and he is perhaps your favorite author. But before he was an author he was a journalist, and as I say one of our first.
For there was a time when there were no newspapers, nothing for father to read at breakfast-time, and no old newspapers to crumple up and light fires with. The first real printed English newspaper was called the Weekly News. It was published in 1622, while King Charles I was still upon the throne.
But this first paper and others that came after it were very small. The whole paper was not so large as a page of one of our present halfpenny papers. The news was told baldly without any remarks upon it, and when there was not enough news it was the fashion to fill up the space with chapters from the Bible. Sometimes, too, a space was left blank on purpose, so that those who bought the paper in town might write in their own little bit of news before sending it off to country friends.
Defoe was one of the first to change this, to write articles and comments upon the news. Gradually newspapers became plentiful. And when Government by party became the settled form of our Government, each party had its own newspaper and used it to help on its own side and abuse the other.
Milton and Dryden were really journalists; Milton when he wrote his political pamphlets, and Dryden when he wrote Absalom and Achitophel and other poems of that kind. But they were poets first, journalists by accident. Defoe was a journalist first, though by nature ever a story-teller.
Daniel Defoe, born in 1661, was the son of a London butcher names James Foe. Why Daniel, who prided himself on being a true-born Englishman, Frenchified his name by adding a "De" to it we do not know, and he was over forty before he changed plain Foe into Defoe.
Daniel's father and mother were Puritans, and he was sent to school with the idea that he should become a Nonconformist minister. But Defoe did not become a minister; perhaps he felt he was unsuited for such solemn duty. "The pulpit," he says later, "is none of my office. It was my disaster first to be set apart for, and then to be set apart from the honor of that sacred employ."
Defoe never went to college, and because of this many a time in later days his enemies taunted him with being ignorant and unlearned. He felt these taunts bitterly, and again and again answered them in his writings. "I have been in my time pretty well master of five languages," he says in one place. "I have also, illiterate though I am, made a little progress in science. I have read Euclid's Elements. . . . I have read logic. . . . I went some length in physics. . . . I thought myself master of geography and to possess sufficient skill in astronomy." Yet he says I am "no scholar."
When Defoe left school he went into the office of a merchant hosier. It was while he was in this office that King Charles II died and King James II came to the throne. Almost at once there followed the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion. The Duke was a Protestant and James was a Catholic. There were many in the land who feared a Catholic King, and who believed too that the Duke had more right to the throne than James, so they joined the rebellion. Among them was Daniel. But the Rebellion came to nothing. In a few weeks the Duke's army was scattered in flight, and he himself a wretched prisoner in the Tower.
Happier than many of his comrades, Defoe succeeded in escaping death or even punishment. Secretly and safely he returned to London and there quietly again took up his trade of merchant hosier. But he did not lose his interest in the affairs of his country. And when the glorious Revolution came he was one of those who rode out to meet and welcome William the Deliverer.
But perhaps he allowed politics to take up too much of his time and thought, for although he was a good business man he failed and had to hide from those to whom he owed money. But soon we find him setting to work again to mend his fortunes. He became first secretary to and then part owner of a tile and brick factory, and in a few years made enough money to pay off all his old debts.
By this time Defoe had begun to write, and was already known as a clever author. Now some one wrote a book accusing William among many other "crimes" of being a foreigner. Defoe says, "this filled me with a kind of rage"; and he replied with a poem called The True-born Englishman. It became popular at once, thousands of copies being sold in the first few months. Every one read it from the King in his palace to the workman in his hut, and long afterwards Defoe was content to sign his books "By the author of
'The True-born Englishman.'" It made Defoe known to the King. "This poem," he said, "was the occasion of my being known to his Majesty." He was received and employed by him and "above the capacity of my deserving, rewarded." He was given a small appointment in the Civil Service. All his life after Defoe loved King William and was his staunch friend, using all the power of his clever pen to make the unloved Dutch King better understood of his people. But when King William died and Queen Anne ruled in his stead Defoe fell on evil times.
In those days the quarrels about religion were not yet over. There was a party in the Church which would very willingly have seen the Nonconformists or Dissenters persecuted. Dissenters were like to have an evil time. To show how wrong persecution was, Defoe wrote a little pamphlet which he called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. He wrote as if he were very angry indeed with the Dissenters. He said they had been far too kindly treated and that if he had his way he would make a law that "whoever was found at a conventicle should be banished the nation and the preacher be hanged. We should soon see an end of the tale--they would all come to Church, and one age would make us all one again."
Defoe meant this for satire. A satire is, you remember, a work which holds up folly or wickedness to ridicule. He meant to show the High Churchmen how absurd and wicked was their desire to punish the Dissenters for worshiping God in their own way. He meant to make the world laugh at them. But at first the High Churchmen did not see that it was meant to ridicule them. They greeted the author of this pamphlet as a friend and ally. The Dissenters did not see the satire either, and found in the writer a new and most bitter enemy.
But when at last Defoe's meaning became plain the High Church party was very angry, and resolved to punish him. Defoe fled into hiding. But a reward of fifty pounds was offered for his discovery, and, "rather than others should be ruined by his mistake," Defoe gave himself up.
For having written "a scandalous and seditious pamphlet" Defoe was condemned to pay a large fine, to stand three times in the pillory, and to be imprisoned during the Queen's pleasure. Thus quickly did Fortune's wheel turn round. "I have seen the rough side of the world as well as the smooth," he said long after. "I have, in less than half a year, tasted the difference between the closet of a King, and the dungeon of Newgate."
The pillory was a terrible punishment. In a public place, raised on a platform, in full view of the passing crowd, the victim stood. Round his neck was a heavy collar of wood, and in this collar his hands were also confined. Thus he stood helpless, unable to protect himself either from the sun or rain or from the insults of the crowd. For a man in the pillory was a fitting object for laughter and rude jests. To be jeered at, to have mud thrown at him, was part of his punishment.
But for Defoe it was a triumph rather than a punishment. To the common people he was already a hero. So they formed a guard round him to protect him from the mud and rotten eggs his enemies would now thrown. They themselves threw flowers, they wreathed the pillory with roses and with laurel till it seemed a place of honor rather than of disgrace. They sang songs in his praise and drank to his health and wished those who had sent him there stood in his place. Thus through all the long, hot July hours Defoe was upheld and comforted in his disgrace. And to show that his spirit was untouched by his sentence he wrote A Hymn to the Pillory. This was bought and read and shouted in the ears of his enemies by thousands of the people. It was a more daring satire than even The Shortest Way. In the end of it Defoe calls upon the Pillory, "Thou Bugbear of the Law," to speak and say why he stands there:--
"Tell them, it was, because he was too bold,
And told those truths which should not have been told!
Extol the justice of the land,
Who punish what they will not understand!
Tell them, he stands exalted there
For speaking what we would not hear:
And yet he might have been secure,
Had he said less, or would he have said more!
Tell them the men that placed him here
Are scandals to the Times!
Are at a loss to find his guilt,
And can't commit his crimes!"
But although Defoe's friends could take the sting out of the terrible hours during which he stood as an object for mockery they could do little else for him. So he went back to prison to remain there during the Queen's pleasure.
This, of course, meant ruin to him. For himself he could bear it, but he had a wife and children, and to know that they were in poverty and bitter want was his hardest punishment.
From prison Defoe could not manage his factory. He had to let that go, losing with it thousands of pounds. For the second time he saw himself ruined. But he had still left to him his pen and his undaunted courage. So, besides writing many pamphlets in prison, Defoe started a paper called the Review. It appeared at first once, then twice, and at last three times a week. Unlike our papers of to-day, which are written by many hands, Defoe wrote the whole of the Review himself, and continued to do so for years. It contained very little news and many articles, and when we turn these worn and yellowing pages we find much that, interesting in those days, has lost interest for us. But we also find articles which, worded in clear, strong, truly English English, seem to us as fresh and full of life as when they were written more than two hundred years ago. We find as well much that is of keen historical interest, and we gain some idea of the undaunted courage of the author when we remember that the first numbers of the Review at least were penned in a loathsome prison where highwaymen, pirates, cut-throats, and common thieves were his chief companions.Next